Inside the newsroom: Our journalists applied a little horse sense to Zinke’s visit

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, left, rides with Deseret News reporter Amy Joi O’Donoghue, right, during Zinke’s visit to the Bears Ears National Monument on Tuesday, May 9, 2017.

When Deseret News staff writer Amy Joi O’Donoghue was 8 years old she mounted a horse for the first time. A few lessons later, the family had purchased a horse named Dandy, and O’Donoghue had her first taste of two things she would grow to love: horses and writing.

Dandy was the inspiration for O’Donoghue’s first written work, a poem penned by her in the third grade that still comes easily to her mind:

A horse needs freedom

A horse needs love,

And if you don’t give him that

He’ll kick you way above.

Years later — last week in fact — the two loves of horsemanship and writing would be put to good use as O’Donoghue was joined by Deseret News photographer Scott Winterton as the only two journalists to ride the Bears Ears area with Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke.

Winterton himself is an accomplished rider, growing up on a cattle ranch in Roosevelt, part of Winterton Brothers Herefords. While O’Donoghue was balancing a pen and notebook, he was setting the reins of his horse on the saddle horn and trying to shoot photos worthy of the area. And he captured a beauty, showing the secretary responsible for the management and conservation of federal land and natural resources framed by the two buttes that give the Bears Ears area its name.

“It was very difficult at times. I’d never ridden that particular horse. … If anyone took off on a trot or a run it kind of took off. When I’m trying to do photos I’m not really paying attention to the horse. I wrapped the reins around the horn of the saddle and wrapped my legs on the horse. I was holding the camera up the best I could.”

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, center left, rides with Deseret News reporter Amy Joi O’Donoghue, center right, and local and state leaders during a visit to the Bears Ears National Monument on Tuesday, May 9, 2017. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

It was a challenge for O’Donoghue as well to both work and ride. After a morning downpour, the terrain was slippery and the ride itself was in jeopardy. But the secretary, joined by all three San Juan County commissioners, ranchers and others mounted anyway and rode the range for two hours. O’Donoghue said the palomino she was riding was well-tempered. Called Rage, the horse didn’t match its name.

“I took notes in a notebook and put the reins over the saddle horn and leaned forward and hoped he didn’t mind the shifting weight. You have to trust your horse that if you let him have his head for a while he’ll go along and not go crazy.”

The result was a compelling account of what the secretary thought of Bears Ears and the controversy surrounding it, part of three days of coverage. At one point he was riding side by side with O’Donoghue:

“One of the things he said to me when we rode Bears Ears is, ‘This is big. This is big country. Gorgeous country, but this is big.'”

At 1.35 million acres, the question is what kind of protection should it have. And should some of those acres simply remain the same as before? He’ll return to Washington, D.C., with recommendations.

Winterton offered his impressions of the ride and the controversy surrounding Bears Ears and he said he personally is conflicted, noting the different points of view on the monument designation.

“I’ve actually been torn. I want it to be preserved, but yet I don’t want it to be impacted by what the preservation may or may not bring. I’m torn between meddling with it and leaving it alone and let the people have it as they’ve had it.”

That’s the sentiment of many in the area. They want it preserved, but how? Zinke came to Utah to talk to the ranchers and others in the area. He met with Friends of Cedar Mesa and representatives of The Nature Conservancy, whose sympathies lie with keeping the monument designation. There are others he didn’t meet with, which brought criticism.

But Zinke himself said all the parties have more in common then perhaps is portrayed by harsh words back and forth from those focused on the monument designation, rather than the land itself. They want to preserve this beautiful area for all to benefit from, and O’Donoghue’s descriptions of the area and lifestyle this past week tells why.

She wrote:

“While the skies cleared, Zinke became acquainted with Payton, a tall flashy Tobiano paint mare who would take him through lush meadows high on south Elk Ridge Mountain. … Zinke’s no greenhorn on a horse and made plain to Utah cattle ranchers he understands what it’s like to grow up in ranching country, with small towns, big dreams and tough challenges.

Great country. Great people.

Following the three-day visit some of the locals expressed to O’Donoghue their feelings about the visit, the designation and the land. It was expressed as a worry, really, and shows the care that will be required no matter what the final disposition of the area becomes.

“They said to me, ‘The minute you start making it famous it’s just going to get worse,’” O’Donoghue recounted.


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Zinke was asked if those back in Washington understand the West and the people living near the Grand Staircase in Escalante and the Bears Ears National Monument.

“They don’t have a clue,” O’Donoghue said he told her. It was like comparing the Potomac River to the Colorado River and trying to understand one river based on the other; not all land is the same either.

Zinke, from Whitefish, Montana, understands there is always tension about land issues. He said it is even more pronounced here in Utah.

Here’s hoping his week in Utah will bring a little horse sense to Washington as the decision-making continues.